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NFL struggles to win on the road

The little noticed death of NFL Europa a sign the league trails rival leagues in overseas growth, but also an indication it's about to make its biggest international push yet.

A weekly column by Chris Isidore senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- The National Football League is an All-American success story. Unfortunately, that's no longer such a good thing.

While here at home, the league has viewership, broadcast rights fees and other revenue that dwarf those of all other U.S. sports, it badly trails the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball as well as individual sports like golf and tennis when it comes to making a breakthrough with non-American fans.

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The NFL's 2005 game in Mexico City was the largest crowd ever to see a game, and a sign that the league is getting more serious about international growth.
The NFL's 2005 game in Mexico City was the largest crowd ever to see a game, and a sign that the league is getting more serious about international growth.

And if there's one thing that all sports owners and commissioners are or should be obsessed with, it's the globalization of sports, and sports revenue.

Sports leagues, even the NFL, are struggling with declining viewership in their home markets due to a plethora of new entertainment options available to fans. Selling games to overseas audiences is where there is the greatest potential is for incremental revenue growth.

Anyone who doubts that sports are moving beyond borders and traditional fan bases should try to avoid watching news of soccer star David Beckham's U.S. arrival this week.

With the Internet allowing for the streaming of games around the globe, and with major sports sponsors looking for global platforms on which to spend their advertising dollars, the potential for international growth is not something that even the most popular U.S. sport can ignore.

A few weeks ago the league quietly shutdown NFL Europa, a minor league it has operated in Europe since 1995. Even though the games of the six teams based in Germany and the Netherlands were averaging about 20,000 fans a game (or nearly one-third more than Major League Soccer draws here), the NFL decided that it was no longer the best way to make European inroads.

"The time is right to re-focus the NFL's strategy on initiatives with global impact, including worldwide media coverage of our sport and the staging of live regular-season NFL games [outside the United States]," commented Mark Waller, senior vice president of NFL International, in announcing the NFL Europa shutdown.

Despite its struggles, there is clearly interest in the NFL overseas.

According to a comparison of figures from sports consulting firm Initiative Sports Future and U.S. television rating service Nielsen Sports Media, the Super Bowl had about 7.7 million viewers outside the United States, compared to 9.6 million combined foreign viewers who tuned into the next four most popular U.S. sporting events -- the Daytona 500, the Masters and the last games of the World Series and NBA Finals.

But foreign viewers made up only about 4 percent of the Super Bowl's overall viewership, compared to 15 percent of the viewers of the last game of the 2006 World Series or 28 percent of the viewers of the final round of the Masters.

Kevin Alavy, the head of analysts for Initiative Sports said he believes that's due to the game's status as a major event for Americans around the globe.

"Unfortunately, we don't know the nationality of those viewers," he said. "I believe it may be a lot of the outside interest in the Super Bowl is the ex-pat community."

Alavy said that while there is only a limited relationship between participation interest in a sport and its spectator appeal, a minimum level of participation and familiarity with a sport is needed to help build fan interest.

"It's always extremely challenging to take a sport and transplant it to another country," said Alavy. "I think with American football, it's particularly difficult because it's a sport with complex rules for outsider to pickup. And there's never been indigenous leagues playing the sport in other countries."

Even the league admits it badly trails the other sports in finding talent from outside the United States. Almost all the players in NFL Europa were Americans. By comparison, all the other major U.S. sports have a significant percentage of foreign born stars here in their home leagues. The handful of foreign-born NFL players are primarily anonymous role players.

Sports marketing consultant Marc Ganis said that the NFL is smart enough to realize the problems it faced and honest enough to recognize that a European-based minor league with a selection of preseason games being played in foreign countries was not the way to make the progress needed.

"If the league wants to grow internationally, regular season games where [the] best are playing the best is the key," he said. "The NFL is the quintessential broadcast league. [Commissioner Roger] Goodell realizes that should be the focus. Having an minor league in Europe is almost a distraction."

The first step in that direction was taken in 2005, when the largest attendance in history for an NFL game was in Mexico City, where the Arizona Cardinals played the San Francisco 49'ers before 103,467 fans.

In October, the owners approved having up to two games a year outside the United States. The league believes it will easily sell out more than 80,000 available seats at London's Wembley stadium when the Miami Dolphins play the New York Giants there this October. The first 40,000 tickets to go on sale for that game sold out in 90 minutes.

"The NFL is so strong domestically, that it does not need much interest beyond North America," said Ganis. "But it would be remiss if it did not take the opportunities presented to it internationally."

Roger Goodell even has spoken of possibly expanding the schedule to 17 games so that every week has at least one foreign game. He's even raised the possibility of having a team or teams in Europe. With the NFL's once-a-week schedule, that is far more of an option than it ever will be for the NBA or MLB with their nightly game schedule.

Yes, the NFL badly trails the NBA and MLB in Asia, where it announced, then postponed, plans for a game in China. Right now the league is focused on growing the sport in Canada, Mexico and Europe.

But even if it's a while before there's a quarterback from Europe or Asia leading his team to the Super Bowl, it's tough to believe that the sport that has found far more business success at home will let its rival leagues rack up all the wins on the road. The NFL won't be All-American much longer. Top of page